When mutualists are pathogens: an experimental study of the symbioses between Steinernema (entomopathogenic nematodes) and Xenorhabdus (bacteria)

J Evol Biol. 2004 Sep;17(5):985-93. doi: 10.1111/j.1420-9101.2004.00748.x.


In this paper, we investigate the level of specialization of the symbiotic association between an entomopathogenic nematode (Steinernema carpocapsae) and its mutualistic native bacterium (Xenorhabdus nematophila). We made experimental combinations on an insect host where nematodes were associated with non-native symbionts belonging to the same species as the native symbiont, to the same genus or even to a different genus of bacteria. All non-native strains are mutualistically associated with congeneric entomopathogenic nematode species in nature. We show that some of the non-native bacterial strains are pathogenic for S. carpocapsae. When the phylogenetic relationships between the bacterial strains was evaluated, we found a clear negative correlation between the effect a bacterium has on nematode fitness and its phylogenetic distance to the native bacteria of this nematode. Moreover, only symbionts that were phylogenetically closely related to the native bacterial strain were transmitted. These results suggest that co-evolution between the partners has led to a high level of specialization in this mutualism, which effectively prevents horizontal transmission. The pathogenicity of some non-native bacterial strains against S. carpocapsae could result from the incapacity of the nematode to resist specific virulence factors produced by these bacteria.

Publication types

  • Comparative Study
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Bacteria / genetics
  • Bacteria / pathogenicity*
  • Colony Count, Microbial
  • DNA Primers
  • Host-Parasite Interactions
  • Insecta / parasitology*
  • Likelihood Functions
  • Models, Genetic
  • Phylogeny*
  • RNA, Ribosomal, 16S / genetics
  • Reproduction / physiology
  • Rhabditida / microbiology*
  • Rhabditida / physiology
  • Sequence Analysis, DNA
  • Species Specificity
  • Statistics, Nonparametric
  • Symbiosis*
  • Xenorhabdus / genetics
  • Xenorhabdus / physiology*


  • DNA Primers
  • RNA, Ribosomal, 16S